Friday, 4 September, 2015
The termite. Most people really only know that they eat wood. Beyond that, they may understand that there are different castes, but few know any more than this. The termite is actually a fascinating species, one of the most successful on the planet when you measure in how long it has been around and how many of them there are. In fact, there are many amazing facts about the termite that will blow you away.
- Termites are one of the oldest species of insects: If success is measured in longevity then the termite would be right up there. They have been around for up to 300 million years, give or take a few million. To put that into perspective, humans have only been around as a distinct species for a hundred thousand years or so.
- Termites are social cockroaches: Go back 300 million years and the termite you find has just broken off from another very successful insect, the cockroach. Termites and cockroaches are actually closely related, with many describing termites as the ‘social cockroach’ because of they are a superorganism.
- Termites are a superorganism: What is a superorganism, you may ask? It is when a number of individuals act for the greater good, sacrificing personal liberty for the group. The most common and well known superorganisms are termites, ants and bees. One of the biggest sacrifices these insects all make is giving up the ability to procreate. In this three species, the nests, colonies and hives are really big families, where all the children are sterile and all new larvae are siblings born to two parents, who are called the king and queen.
- There are two to five times the biomass of termites than humans: First we better explain what a biomass is. Biomass is the weight of an entire species. Take the seven billion humans and put them on a giant set of scales and that is our biomass. A whole nest of termites (roughly 2 million) only weigh 15 kgs, so you can imagine how many individual termites would be required to weigh two to five times all of humanity!
- Termites build using afungi that protects them from disease: The more animals that live in a confined space the more susceptible they are to a pandemic. Termites should be particularly at risk but scientists have discovered that they actually build using a fungus that is able to protect them from most serious diseases.
- The mounds are not actually inhabited but are more like air conditioning units: The five metre high mounds that many termites build are not actually where they live but rather serve as big air conditioning units for the underground nest below it. Termites are very sensitive to heat and humidity levels and they have developed these mounds to act as passive environmental conditioning, ensuring that no matter the conditions outside, they are the same inside all year round.
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